MONEY Food & Drink

What Americans Are Ordering Even More of at Lunchtime

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It ain't health food, that's for sure.

Generally speaking, Americans say they want healthier diets—more organic foods, more vegetables, less sugar, salt, and fat, and so on. But trends like the rising popularity of grab-and-go food at convenience stores, as well as the long list of “healthy” fast foods that failed to catch on with consumers indicates that often, we don’t put our money where our mouths are.

So it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that lunchtime consumption of the all-American burger is on the rise. A new study from the NPD Group refers to burgers as the “Heavy Artillery in Restaurant Lunch Wars,” providing 8.9 billion servings for the year ending in June 2015. (This is strictly an estimate for restaurant servings, not backyard barbecues and such; the total burger tally for the entire country is roughly 50 billion burgers per year.)

It bodes well for the economy that lunchtime restaurant visits in general are up, increasing 2% at casual-dining (sit-down) chains—the first time in five years midday traffic has risen for this struggling category—and increasing 1% at quick-serve (fast food) establishments as well. And it’s the humble burger that’s having an outsize influence in driving sales higher. Burger orders at casual-dining restaurants are up 3% year over year, the only part of the menu to record an increase.

Even if they’re not the healthiest options out there, the fact that burgers are tasty and ubiquitous and tend to be on the less-expensive end of the menu has certainly boosted sales. “Successful casual dining operators offer burgers that meet the tastes of their customers and are priced competitively,” NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs said. “As a result, they gain lunch visitors.”

Read next: Best Places in the U.S. for Foodies

TIME

These May Be the Weirdest McDonald’s Burgers Ever Devised

McDonalds Earnings Rise On Value Menu
Scott Olson—Getty Images

And here's why you can't get one

Have you ever wished that McDonald’s had a burger with pineapple, tortilla chips, a fried egg, sliced beetroot, and jalapeños all wrapped in lettuce? Well, you can now make that happen if you live down under. And by that I mean Australia, not down under the dumpster outside your local Mickey D’s.

McDonald’s is currently hosting a “Create Your Taste” contest in Australia. It offers customers the opportunity to customize their own burger using a list of 30 ingredients. They can enter their creation online for a chance to win one of 100,000 possible prizes. Winners may get a free meal at the chain, a trip to Thailand, or one of the 99,998 options in between.

McDonald’s displays some of the creations on their website along with the artist’s name. Here are a few interesting concoctions:

Matt made a sandwich with two angus patties with red onion, cheddar, caramelized onions, rasher bacon, grilled pineapple, a fried egg, tomato chili jam and aioli wrapped in lettuce. Sounds messy.

Isabella’s creation includes an angus patty with jalapeños, red onion, cheddar, Swiss, rasher bacon, guacamole, tomato chili jam, dijonnaise and herb aioli on a brioche bun. Four condiments. These people are bold.

Alex whipped up something for all you vegetarians out there: Jalapeños, red onion, pickle, tomato, sliced beetroot, herb aioli, and three slices of lettuce wrapped in lettuce. This guy really likes lettuce.

TIME Burger King

Burger King Sales Get a Boost From Chicken Fries

Burger King Profits Rise 19 Percent
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A Burger King restaurant in San Francisco, Calif.

The restaurant chain is outperforming McDonald's

Burger King’s chicken fries are spicing up sales at the fast-food restaurant chain.

Daniel Schwartz, CEO of Restaurant Brands, told analysts that Burger King was finding success in offering fewer menu items with limited complexity in the kitchen so the company’s restaurants can produce the food quickly upon request. Chicken fries were one of the items that performed particularly well, as did a premium line of burgers. A breakfast option drove sales during the early part of the day.

Chicken fries first debuted in Burger King’s restaurants in 2005, but were taken off the menu in 2012. They initially returned on a limited-time basis last summer, and they became a permanent menu fixture earlier this year. Chicken fries cost around $3, are profitable, and restaurants are selling a lot of them, the Associated Press reported, quoting Schwartz.

Burger King merged with coffee and doughnut chain Tim Hortons late last year to form a company called Restaurant Brands International. The company reported quarterly results on Monday, saying comparable sales at Burger King jumped by 6.7% in constant currency, the best performance for the chain in nearly a decade. Tim Hortons posted a 5.5% jump in sales. Overall sales grew even more at both chains as Restaurant Brands opened new locations under both banners.

The growth at Burger King was particularly notable as it stacked up well compared to rival McDonald’s, which last week reported comparable sales dropped 0.7% globally, including a 2% decline in the U.S.

TIME

McDonald’s Promotions, New Menu Items Fail to Jolt U.S. Sales

McDonald's
Christoph Schmidt—Christoph Schmidt/picture-allian

Burger chain remains under pressure from rivals

Sales at McDonald’s U.S. stores slipped again in the second quarter, as efforts to generate business with new featured menu items and promotions failed to lift traffic at the fast-food operator’s restaurants.

The burger chain, which is facing pressure as more consumers defect for rival chains such as Chipotle [fortune-stock symbol=”CMG”], reported same-store sales for the second quarter dropped 2% in the U.S., while operating income for that region dropped 6%. Analysts had projected a less severe 1.5% drop, according to Consensus Metrix.

President and Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook, who took on the effort to steer a turnaround at McDonald’s earlier this year, attempted to strike a positive tone despite the muted results.

“We have made meaningful progress since announcing the initial steps of McDonald’s turnaround plan in early May,” said Easterbrook. “While our second quarter results were disappointing.”

McDonald’s on Thursday said in the U.S., local market tests would continue for all-day breakfast as well as a move to streamline the menu to make service speedier. The world’s largest restaurant company has been testing limited-time menu items, like the third-of-a-pound burger, and also has made some brand image moves like reviving the Hamburglar character and pledging to stop selling chicken raised with some antibiotics.

Overall, McDonald’s reported revenue slipped 10% to $6.5 billion, though it would have increased 1% excluding the strong U.S. dollar. Earnings were also down 10% to $1.26 per share. Those results were better than what analysts had predicted.

TIME Food & Drink

This Is Every City’s Favorite Food, as Told by Instagram Hashtags

New York loves sushi more than any city in Japan, but London is the burger capital of the world

Other than selfies and cute cat photos, photo-sharing app Instagram is known for pictures of one other thing: food.

But photoworld.com decided to dig a little deeper and find out which cities like what kind of food, through an interactive project called “The Food Capitals of Instagram.” The project features a series of maps, taking 18 popular dishes from various countries to see — through hashtag numbers — which city shows them the most love.

New York City loves bacon the most, contributing nearly 8% of all bacon photos on the social network.

Photoworld.com

It also loves the quintessential Caribbean dish jerk chicken more than the Jamaican capital city of Kingston, and (along with three other cities) loves sushi more than anywhere in the Japanese delicacy’s country of origin.

It also has more pizza lovers than Italy.

There are other surprises, however, such as the fact that (based on Instagram at least) London is the burger capital of the world:

Photoworld.com

As for macarons, the delectable French pastries that are a favorite dessert of many — they’re most popular in Thailand’s capital city Bangkok followed by South Korean capital Seoul (the two cities account for 15% of all tagged macaron photos):

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Canada, however, can take heart from (or be offended by) the fact that its signature potato-based dish poutine remains very much its own:

Photoworld.com

Check out the full interactive here.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Eat Burgers?

3/5 experts say no.

Cue the sound of a thousand grills shedding a summer-hot tear: burgers, as we know them, are not a health food, most of our experts agree.

But there might be some wiggle room there, depending on what’s in your patty. “Fatty beef from dubiously fed cattle, slathered in sugary ketchup and placed between two haves of a refined flour bun? No thanks,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Same for any beef burger not made with 90-97% lean ground beef, says Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian in preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic.

However, Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, gives a thumbs up to burgers in moderation and in proper portion sizes; burgers are high in protein, vitamin B12 and iron, she says. Plus, says Zumpano, if you make the burgers yourself, you can control the ingredients and maximize the better-for-you elements while cutting down on the more harmful ones.

Moderation, of course, is the key word. Eating beef burgers regularly isn’t a good idea for a few reasons, says Erica Frank, MD, professor and Canada research chair in preventive medicine and population health at the University of British Columbia. Beef burgers are loaded with saturated fat, she points out; an ungarnished fast-food cheeseburger has 29% of your daily FDA-recommended limit.

Then, of course, every burger comes with a large side of environmental issues. Beef isn’t the most sustainable meat to produce. “Raising a cow takes a huge amount of water,” she says—between 4,000-18,000 gallons for a hamburger, according to the U.S. Geographical Survey. Livestock production is a large contributor to climate change, she says, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations says the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

“The reality is that global demand for meat is increasing nearly 2 percent a year,” says Rebecca Shaw, PhD, associate vice president and senior lead scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “As incomes rise, so does demand for meat protein.” Plant-based proteins can help ease that load, but “the bottom line is that we need to make beef, pork and poultry as sustainable as possible,” she says. One way to make burgers better for the earth is to change the way we raise a primary source of cow feed: U.S. corn, nearly 40 percent of which goes towards animal chow, Shaw says. “The low-hanging fruit is to grow this corn more sustainably by reducing excess fertilizer used to grow the corn,” she says. “This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality.”

Choosing grass-fed—instead of corn-fed—meat is one way to earn burgers a slightly higher rating in Katz’s opinion; you have his permission to plate grass-fed beef bison on a whole-grain bun with slices of tomato, onion, avocado and lettuce. He gives a “definite yes,” though, to his wife’s special: a mix of lean, free-range ground turkey and lentils, patted atop a homemade whole-wheat bun with vegetables and salsa.

Burgers
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

Read Next: Should I Eat French Fries?

TIME Burger King

Burger King Considers Rolling Out Vegetarian Options

Burger King Said To Be In Talks Of Sale Of Company
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Herbivores might have more options soon

Vegetarians at Burger Kings in the United States and many other markets currently have one main meal option: a Morning Star Veggie Burger. But herbivores might have more options soon, as Burger King considers rolling out its Indian vegetarian menu options in other markets.

Since India’s population leans vegetarian, the fast food joint offers six vegetarian sandwiches in the country, according to Quartz. Options on the Burger King India menu include: a Veg Chilli Cheese Melt, a vegetarian Whopper, Crispy Veg, Spicy Bean Royale, Paneer King Melt, and the BK Veggie. There are also vegetarian sides such as Veggie Strips, which look like mozzarella sticks stuffed with vegetables instead of cheese, and spicy onion rings called Fiery Rings.

“Looking at the response here, the global management is evaluating introducing some of these options going forward to other vegetarian-friendly markets like the UK,” Raj Varman, Burger King India’s CEO, told PTI.

Burger King isn’t the only fast food restaurant to realize tastes are changing. Wendy’s recently tested a black bean veggie burger in select Ohio stores that received rave reviews.

MONEY Food & Drink

Chicken Fight! Fast Food Competitors Cook Up a Golden Age for Chicken

Winner winner chicken dinner.

In the competition for fast food customer dollars, an epic game of chicken is being played, and no one dares chickening out. The steaks—er, stakes—are just too high. (Sorry, had to get those bad puns out of the way pronto.)

The battles are being waged with high-profile marketing campaigns—see the big health push by Boston Market to promote its classic rotisserie chicken, and the return of Colonel Sanders for KFC. And the chicken wars are being waged with a dizzying number of new chicken items hitting restaurant menus. Chicken isn’t being limited to lunch and dinner, but it’s been added to breakfast menus as well, what with Taco Bell’s chicken-biscuit taco and nearly half of what’s featured at Chick-fil-A during the morning hours.

So many new chicken sandwiches have flooded the market that we decided to have an office taste-a-thon, featuring low-cost options from two stalwart fast-food players (Wendy’s crispy dill chicken sandwich, White Castle Sriracha chicken slider) alongside a casual dining chain’s tweak on a favorite item (Olive Garden’s chicken parm breadsticks sandwich), plus a celebrity chef’s much-hyped quick-serve fried chicken offering (David Chang’s Fuku in Manhattan). We would have loved to have also included the forthcoming chicken offshoot from Shake Shack, the fast-casual favorite created by Danny Meyer, but nothing’s available for tasting yet. In any event, watch the video above to check out the rather surprising results of the tastings for yourself.

Why has chicken become such a hot menu item? Part of the explanation is that chicken is so pliable. It takes on almost any flavor, from orange to lemon, garlic chile to tangy barbecue. It resonates with different demographics based not only on taste, but on how it can be sliced, chopped, and molded into shapes—nuggets, popcorn, dinosaurs, strips, fingers, fries, and beyond.

While the bird flu outbreak of 2015 has caused egg prices to soar, the impact on the chicken supply for restaurants has been mild. The result is that chicken prices today are cheap compared with beef, as they have been for years.

Chicken is a household staple because it’s affordable—exhibit A is the immensely popular $5 rotisserie chicken from Costco—and also because it’s perceived to be healthier than most other meats. That often goes even for chicken when it’s fried.

“Fried chicken is really a great base to work with,” Elizabeth Friend, senior analyst with the market research firm Euromonitor International, told QSR Magazine. “It’s salty, crunchy, indulgent, but still a protein that, while not exactly healthful, people feel is a better way to go than beef.”

All of the above explains why restaurants are so hot on chicken, and why chicken could one day push the burger aside for fast food supremacy. It sure looks like that’s where things are headed. Data cited by CNBC shows that America’s top 500 restaurant chains added 55 chicken items in January and February 2015, compared with just 33 new burgers, and that chicken purchases at fast food restaurants were up 3% for the 12-month period ending in March, compared with a rise of 1% for burger sales.

The shift to chicken over beef is even more pronounced when we incorporate cooking and dining at home, and when the numbers are viewed over the course of decades. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans are projected to eat 90 pounds of chicken per capita in 2015, up from 35 to 40 pounds in the late 1960s and 50 pounds in the mid-’80s. Beef has been on the opposite course, meanwhile, with per capita consumption projected at 54 pounds this year, down from 70 to 80 pounds through most of the ’70s and ’80s.

Read next: The Demise of ‘Satisfries’ and the Sad History of Healthy Fast Food

TIME Fast Food

The Surprising Reason Wendy’s Is Making a Beefless Burger

Workers In Fast Food Industry Begin Efforts To Unionize Jobs
Spencer Platt—Getty Images A Wendy's sign hangs as protesters, many of them employees at Wendy's fast-food restaurant, demonstrate outside of one of the restaurants to demand higher pay and the right to form a union on November 29, 2012 in New York City.

The beef is definitely not here

A burger without beef? The thought is surely sacrilegious to most Americans.

But Wendy’s is no longer catering to just its home country. With the opening of its first store in Gurgaon, India earlier this month, the company has had to rethink its attachment to the meat that made it famous.

According to a report in Ad Age, Wendy’s is rolling out a menu featuring “spicy aloo crunch burgers and buns sprinkled with chili, turmeric and coriander,” but no beef. That’s because in India, where Hindu is the majority religion, the cow is considered sacred.

Other fast food chains, like McDonald’s, also offer beefless menus, but Wendy’s is differentiating itself in other ways.

According to Ad Age:

Wendy’s debut outpost in Gurgaon, just southwest of New Delhi, has less of a fast food feel and more of a casual dining atmosphere, though prices remain low . . . Meals are served at the table, on proper china plates.

 

 

TIME Fast Food

McDonald’s Is Making 2 Big Changes to Its Burgers

McDonalds Campaign
Gene J. Puskar—AP A McDonald's Big Mac sandwich at a McDonald's restaurant in Robinson Township, Pa. on Jan. 21, 2014.

The fast food chain is changing things up to boost sales

McDonald’s believes it has the solution to declining sales —and it starts with warmer buns.

The world’s largest fast-food chain is “recommitting to hotter, tastier food,” said CEO Steve Easterbrook, who launched a new strategic turnaround plan earlier this month.

To make that happen, McDonald’s will now toast its burger buns 5 seconds longer, thus making the bread 15 degrees warmer. It will also bring the heat to its burger patties. The chain will change the way it sears and grills its beef so it’s juicier, though the company didn’t elaborate on the details.

Easterbrook, who took the helm in March after the former CEO stepped down, believes that every little bit counts and sums up “to a big difference for our customers,” he said at a conference Wednesday morning, according to Buzzfeed.

READ MORE: Can McDonald’s get its mojo back?

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has futzed with its toasting levels. In the 1990s, the chain gave up toasting its buns altogether in exchange for efficiency, but the quality decline didn’t go over so well. By 1997, McDonald’s changed its mind and required new stores to install toasting equipment at a cost of about $7,000 per location.

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